The art of Vladimir Cybil falls in a rather long tradition of Haitian artists who have focused their work on various aspects of their nation's culture and history. This focus has been so tenacious that it seems as though, contextually, ''art" and "Haitian art" constitute a tautology.
The preoccupation with the national, of course, applies as well to a considerable number of Haitian artists who have lived abroad for the longest time--including Cybil, who was actually born in New York but grew up mostly in Haiti or, to use the title of her first solo exhibit in Haiti, "Endezo," that is, "in two waters." For instance, both Paul Gardère and Emmanuel Mérisier--accomplished veterans whose artistic temperaments are markedly different--have fiercely pursued a course that focuses overwhelmingly on Haiti's cultural and historical realities.
Having closely scrutinized the art of both of these artists, it is perhaps well worth it to situate Cybil's artistic outlook vis-a-vis theirs. Mérisier's art is a formidable "creolized" expressionism which, like that of Oskar Kokoschka or of German Expressionism in general, is strongly tinged with an abiding existentialism. Usually it seeks to expose or champion what has often been historically maligned, whether by Haitians or non-Haitians--the downtrodden, Vodou and even the aesthetic ethos of the likes of, say, Hector Hyppolite or Robert St. Brice. Gardère's provocative art, in contrast, is an often calculated, perplexing juxtaposition of would-be appropriated images that compel viewers themselves to process the multilayered narratives the artists merely hints at. Though obsessed with the degradation and death stemming from Haiti's colonial heritage and wreched politics, Gardère's art seeks at once to decontruct, reexamine if not reinvent Haitian national identity.
Though there are some important overlaps in the artistic attitudes of all three artists vis-a-vis their subjects, Cybil's outlook is nevertheless much looser--that is, sociopolitically and philosophically less programmatic. Call her a sort of Abstract Nationalist or one who digs up bits of cultural memory so as to transform them into aesthetic permanence. Thus, her art is poetic. Compared with that of Gardère or Mérisier, her art-making--that is, her use of materials is more conspicuously displayed (though Gardère actually uses perhaps as many, if not more, materials than she does.
Consider Cybil's "Cheval Minuit," (midnight horse) for instance. It's simply evocative, as if its subject-matter were an excuse to indulge in the manipulation of her materials in order to create a visually appealing and, to boot, deliciously romantic work. Thus, there is a certain distance between the artist and her subject-matter that tends to allow viewers not to focus primarily on the work's meaning or sociocultural significance. Rather one tends to contemplate its aesthetic qualities--the subtle outline and movement of the galloping horse, the various reds, Bawon Samdi's top hats or the rotation of his glinting canes etc.. It even seems as though the entire work, with its classical columns and glimmering reflections, were a stage for a graceful horse, not Ogou or Bawon Samdi per se, the Lwa (spirits) it evokes. If it weren't perhaps for Cybil's astute handling of her paint and materials (not too dainty or overly elaborated, just the right amount of roughness) the work would be merely yet another romanticized painting derived from some Vodou elements. As it is--no joke or sales pitch intended--it's perhaps perfect for an esthete or serious bourgeois's home!
But Gardère and Mérisier's works are not devoid of the characteristics I've attributed to Cybil's art. Mérisier's aesthetic attitude toward his subjects--his deliberately unrefined paint handling, in particular--is in synch with Cybil's, but more often it's the immediacy of his themes that is dominant. And of course the works of all three artists are quite connected to Haitian art history or visual culture--Mérisier, at times, with his frenzied flowers and ghostly figures rendered in a deliberately raw style that echoes the art of, among others, Hector Hyppolite and Robert St. Brice; Gardère, with his extensive use of glitter, which is reminiscent of beaded or sequined Vodou flags; and Cybil, with her beads, sequins and frames that look like Veve (ceremonial ground drawings) and Haitian metal cutouts. And like both artists, Cybil's subject-matter or its meaning can appear to dominate her work, as I think it does, for instance, in her "Missing in Action," which has to do with the pillage of Haiti's cultural heritage.
Nevertheless, much of the work presented in "Endezo" bear traits that are more or less similar to "Cheval Minuit." However, one other aspect of her art is worth mentioning--and she indulges in it more often then Gardère and certainly much more than Mérisier: She sometimes inserts literally her own image or persona into her work in order to role-play in a particular slice of Haiti's cultural or sociopolitical history. In the four self-portraits that make up "Métamorphose," for instance, the artist assumes the role of various sociocultural types--"Femme Feuille, " Femme Fruit," "Femme Larme" and "Femme Cerceuil." (In a previous exhibit, her self-portraits assumed the identity of, among others, Toussaint Louverture and Défilée La Folle, who buried Dessalines' mutilated remains.) Thus, Cybil's art is not just theatrical in the Postminimalism sense--that is, in the way it enduces viewers to physically move about in order to experience the entire topography of each individual piece. As seen in "Cheval Minuit," it's as if her artwork were a stage. In this sense, her "Femme Feuille" is as much an act of vicarious role-playing as it is an attempt to graft, as it were, a positive connotation to what in the Haitian context or Creole lexicon ("Fanm fèy") is a pejorative appelation. ( Here, Cybil's attitude dovetails with that of Mérisier in his paintings on such themes as "Moun Pòv" (poor people) or "Nèg Mòn" (a hillbilly)).
The consciously imposed duality in "Métamorphose"--that is to say, the obvious masquerading and, on the other hand, the sociocultural realities the individual portraits represent--stems from the postmodern imperative to undermine the notion of originality or the belief that artistic images convey objective truths. Gardère, too, is heedful of this imperative, as seen, for instance, in his own artistic role-playing in his recent "Self-portrait with Hector Hypopolite" in which, in a sense, he impersonates Hyppolite, Jean-Michel Basquiat and to some degree, Monet. But Gardere's career is actually vastly different in many ways from these artists. (He settled in New York in 1959, but has returned to Haiti quite a few times.) The subtext of his picture, of course, is to expose the degree of fakery or artificiality inherent in artistic images as well as in the construct called Haitian national identity.
All in all, as seen, both "art" and "Haitian art" are taken seriously among some of the Haitian artists living outside of their country--certainly, at least, by Gardère, Mérisier and Cybil. But to me, Cybil keeps a middle course or more appropriately, the works in "Endezo" tend to convince one that she prefers to err on the side of "art."
Andre Juste, December 1999
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